A truly mind-bending array of humanoid imagery - Robots, Science Museum, review

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Robots at the Science Museum - preview Robots at the Science Museum - preview
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Whatever image the word “robot” evokes, robots – for most of us – belong in the future. Now, however, “the future” is here, robot technology is all around us in ways we can barely comprehend, and our attitude towards them is highly ambivalent. Robots can save us time and effort, but also steal our jobs, our thought processes and – if you believe some commentators – our very will to survive as a species.

Yet the that very word still has a sexy enough ring to ensure that this self-proclaimed blockbuster show at the Science Museum, promising the latest technology straight from the lab, will be one of the exhibitions of the year. Tracing the development of robot technology over 500 years, the show adopts a dispassionate, philosophical approach, focusing less on how robots work than the questions of why we need to make machines in our own image, and what that tells us about our desires and ambitions.

A super astronaut robot toy from Seventies Japan, now on display at the Science Museum Credit: Science Museum

The show’s earliest example is a foot-high, still-functioning 16th-century mechanical monk, made for Philip II of Spain, while a life-size, solid-silver swan from 1772 looks like a preposterous rococo table ornament until it starts craning its neck around in an extraordinarily swan-like movement. But it’s when it hits the 20th century that the show gets into its stride, with a display of wonderful radio-controlled exhibition robots, made between the Twenties and the Fifties: all larger than life-size, with the goofily benign look of the pre-television age humanoid.

Eric the robot opening the Society of Model Engineering Exhibition, as seen in Popular Science Monthly, 1928. Credit: Science Museum

The first independently moving machine, however, the Cybernetic Tortoise, looks like a purely functional object, a sort of battery on wheels with a plastic bowl over the top. But it had an extraordinary response when first seen at the Festival of Britain in 1951, responding to light and to the presence of other objects, and finding its way back to its recharging unit, entirely on its own impulses. Created by Bristol neurologist Grey Walter to demonstrate theories about cell-structure, it’s an example of how much robot technology has been produced by scientists in down-time from their “proper” work.

Owen Holland and Rob Knight’s fantastic ROSA stands out precisely because she corresponds to our idea of what a couple of visionary boffins might dream up in their spare time: a mad tangle of plastic bones, steel pins and full-articulating string-tendons, her single eye, which follows us round the room, formed from a household pasta-measuring instrument.

The Nao V5 Evolution humanoid robot Credit: Science Museum

The last and largest room brings us bang up to date with a whole range of robots demonstrating their powers in what feels like a trade-fair of the future. We meet Robothespian, a talkative, British-made robot-MC fluent in 40 languages, and can touch knuckles with the “empathetic” Pepper, programmed to respond to human facial expressions. The heavy-industrial Yumi makes surprisingly delicate paper aeroplanes in front of us, but can’t yet throw them very far.

If many of these humanoids have been designed for exhibition purposes, to give extra zip to corporate events, others have serious purposes. The University of Hertfordshire’s Kaspar, a baseball-capped toddler with a man-sized head – and slightly creepy at first sight – has been remarkably successful in developing empathy in autistic children. Kodomoroid, a young Japanese “woman” who reads news bulletins every twenty minutes, and the nearest thing to a could-pass-for-human android, may soon be acting as a carer for the elderly in Japan.

The exhibition uses each of them to pose questions about what we want from robots, ranging from the worthy – can gender-neutral robots help us become a more equal and inclusive society? – to the practical – if robots are going to “take” our jobs, should the companies using them pay income tax on their behalf?

The mischievous robotic receptionist Inhka Credit: Science Museum

While all these machines are capable of “learning” at levels that are beyond the grasp of the lay-person, it’s difficult to get a strong sense of this without far more one-to-one interaction than is offered in this exhibition. Given the Science Museum’s reputation for interactive exhibition, and indeed the nature of the subject itself, there’s little on offer in the way of button-pushing activities, the opportunity to “talk” to the robots or test what they can do. Yes, you can get rudimentary fashion hints from Inkha, a waspish robotic receptionist installed at London University’s Kings College in 2002. But in robot terms, that is ancient history, and the degree of interaction touchingly primitive.

You’ll leave possibly little the wiser about how robots actually work, but very likely reassured by their still limited capabilities. They can’t yet go upstairs and need their batteries frequently recharging – by us. While some children may struggle with the lack of “things to do”, this is an exhibition that will entertain people of all ages, including many children, through its appeal to the imagination, with a truly mind-bending array of “humanoid” imagery from a scarily realistic latex baby to a pneumatic “bipedal walker”, made by British amateur robotists using redundant central heating part. Through their very eccentricity, these objects get under the skin of what it is to be human.

Feb 8 until Sept 3; 0333 241 4000 ; sciencemuseum.org.uk

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